I’m the kind of person who likes to get into my car, pull up an album and play it for my neighborhood as I drive through to wherever I’m going.
As you can imagine, this can be a quite daunting task as I try to strike a perfect balance between proper bass and fluid sound. Basically, while attempting to piss off people in their homes, I’d really like at least SOMEBODY to nod their head in recognition and, thus, appreciation as I drive by. Am I a menace at times? Yes. Do I do it for the culture? Yes.
Just a few weeks ago, I drove down the street blasting Switch’s “I Call Your Name,” and I can report with confidence that several people could be seen singing along with Bobby DeBarge from the sidewalk while I was stopped at the light. My heart fluttered with joy.
What I have noticed is that I almost always find myself turning to A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders album to serve this moving boom box purpose. I try to talk myself into other albums (any Isaac Hayes and T.I.’s King album are also favorites), but I’ve never been served wrong by MM. Yesterday I did the same dance, but I didn’t even fight myself on it; MM was my soundtrack. It was then I realized that truth all hip-hop heads try to come to: Midnight Marauders is my favorite hip-hop album of all time.
This wasn’t always my reality. I was late to the party when it comes to early-’90s New York-crafted hip-hop. For starters, my formative years were spent in Frankfurt, Germany. I got most of my music by either stealing tapes from my older sister or borrowing them from my friends whose cousins would send music from stateside to keep us up-to-date with what culture looked like from across the Atlantic Ocean. I used to get VHS tapes of music videos, which is how I knew about EPMD, De La Soul, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, etc. But most of the actual cassette tapes I had (from either my sister or friends) featured music from the West Coast or down South.
When I moved back to the states in 1993 to attend high school, we settled in the South. I was a huge Ice Cube fan, and then Death Row came through and crushed the buildings. Then, in 1994, came Outkast, which changed everything for me. I can vividly remember two friends I had in high school who had very East Coast leanings: my boy Elijah, who was heavy on groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Black Sheep, and my boy Titus, who made me absolutely HATE all things Wu-Tang Clan because of one summer when he was the only person with a car, and to ride with him meant you would be subject to any and all things Wu. I cannot stress enough how much I HATED the Wu-Tang Clan when they first hit the scene nationwide (an opinion I don’t hold now, so put the pitchforks away).
The West Coast and South were where my musical heart resided. Those tastes all changed eventually—Jay-Z is my favorite rapper, and I swear by Reasonable Doubt—but early on, I just enjoyed the melodious and harmonious sounds of those regions more, with one exception: De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead album. In the fall of 1991 on a class field trip to somewhere, a friend of mine gave me her headphones and told me to check out the album she was listening to. Since 1991, if you were to ask me my favorite hip-hop album, it would without fail ALWAYS be De La Soul Is Dead.
I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a huge De La fan, but that album was everything I’d ever wanted in an album: dope concept, cohesive message, great skits, solid lyricism and production from Prince Paul (in my opinion, probably the most underrated hip-hop producer of all time) that was so great that while I’d never do it, it made me want to slap my mama.
I’ve recently come to the conclusion that while I do have a tremendous and undying love for De La Soul Is Dead, I can go months, even years, without listening to it. In fact, there is only one hip-hop album that I can probably go no longer than a week without listening to, and such has been the case for at least 15 years now, and I’m sure you know where I’m going with that.
Let’s get the the incendiary commentary out of the way: Midnight Marauders is HANDS DOWN Tribe’s best album. While The Low End Theory is close and I understand why people love it and like to argue that it’s better—it is a huge and more developed, more mature and more influential departure from their first album—it’s just not true.
MM might not be a departure from LET, but it leveled up in every conceivable way. Every facet of MM is better than LET. The beats are better, the lyrics are better, the vibe is better. Granted, there’s no MM without LET, and LET contains arguably Tribe’s best song in “Scenario” and “Check the Rhime.” But MM is a nonstop thrill ride of jazz rap set to some of the best boom-bap drum programming in hip-hop. Plus it has “Electric Relaxation,” which contains Tribe’s most notable quotables in both “I like them brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian ... ” and THE most famous: “ ... bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s Furniture.”
Tribe is many people’s favorite group and I’m no different; when Phife passed last year, it hit me in a way that compelled me to write a tribute to him. It took me a while to get there, since I was, again, late to the party, but when I really latched onto Tribe in the form of MM, I just couldn’t let go. Nobody would ever confuse Q-Tip and Phife for master lyricists, but on this album, they worked perfectly with each other. It was an album of “Check the Rhime” chemistry over Tip’s perfectly crafted productions. And that even undersells the production. “Award Tour,” “God Lives Through,” “Oh My God” and “Sucka Nigga” and, well, you get the point.
I remember having conversations with my friends about what album we absolutely could not live without. For me, that album is, without a doubt, MM, and it has been for years now. It’s perfect for the car and the headphones. If I could take the album on a date, I’d pick a nice seafood spot and let it order anything on the menu. Surf and turf? Go ’head—you earned it, boo.
That’s how I feel about Tribe’s MM album. It’s long been the album I listen to the most (another talk show, but Frank Ocean’s Blonde album is the one I listen to the most while washing dishes—I love that album now), and I still appreciate it as much now as I did when I first really gave it a listen. Sure, there are songs I like more than those on this album. And sure, there are albums that I think might be technically better, but there’s nothing like an album that checks all of the boxes on beats, rhymes and life. Midnight Marauders is that album.
“ ... and if I ever went solo, my favorite MC would be me ... ”
Me too, Phife. Me too.